“Africa Speaks,” Rubin added, is, “not dumbed down for the masses at all. It’s a dense, complicated work that’s just very groovy. And it makes you want to get up and dance.”
“Africa Speaks” was made by plan and happenstance. It originated, Santana said, in his visits over the years to record stores — particularly the Virgin megastore in Paris, which had a huge inventory of African music before it shut down in 2013. “I used to go there religiously and buy anything and everything that moved that was African, with the colors,” he said.
Santana chose favorite tracks from those African albums and brought the playlist to Rubin and the tight-knit touring Santana band. The full band set up at Rubin’s Shangri-La Studios in Malibu, and listened to the African recordings as references. Santana chose sections of songs as templates, sometimes calling for tempo or key changes, and the band started jamming on them. “No practice, no rehearsal, we just listened to the songs,” Santana said.
In 10 days of sessions, the band recorded a remarkable 49 songs. They drew on the Algerian singer Rachid Taha (who also shares a songwriting credit on “Supernatural”), the Jay U Xperience and Easy Kabaka Brown from Nigeria, the bandleader Ismaël Lô from Senegal, the Kenyan saxophonist Mohammed Jabry and the globe-hopping Spanish-French songwriter Manu Chao. They move through rock, funk, calypso, flamenco and the Santana band’s own pan-Afro-Latin fusions.
“Of course we’d ask permission from the writers, the publishers, the lawyers, everybody,” Santana said, “and once we got the green light we would record the songs and we’d take it to the next level.” (Unfortunately, most of the album credits name the African composers but not the title of the underlying song.)
The first music from the Malibu sessions appeared on an EP, “In Search of Mona Lisa,” that was released in January. But those tracks used Santana’s regular band singers. Meanwhile, Santana and Rubin had decided that the new album would be more distinctive if it used female vocals instead. And while doing some late-night internet surfing for African music, Santana had come across Buika.